Why do some children find it more difficult to learn from being sanctioned for their behaviour? Do some children think differently? Is it something as fundamental as not being able to see the link between an action and its consequences, or is it more about misunderstanding other people’s intentions? When children learn early in life that other people’s motives are not always safe or trustworthy, we need a different approach to discipline. There is still a temptation, especially when under stress, that we default to a dogma that children should learn by facing the consequences of their actions.
Consider first what happens when we assume children who have suffered abuse and neglect early in life can change their behaviour in response to being sanctioned.
David was in a Primary 1 class. The nursery had flagged concerns that his language was delayed, and he found it impossible to listen to his teacher unless he was sitting on her lap. Observing him in class was rather like watching a runaway train. When he needed something, he would sprint across the room, knocking over other children left and right. His teacher explained, “We can’t have David running over other children. Do you think we should make him sit in the thinking chair?”
A few weeks later, I met David’s parents. They both had learning difficulties. For the first months of his life, David had been completely neglected. I wondered how he had even survived. Expecting David to reflect on his behaviour while sitting in the thinking chair was unrealistic. What the teacher was expressing was probably her frustration that nothing seemed to get through to David, but what he needed was help at a developmentally fundamental level.
In contrast, John was in his fourth year of high school. He had lived with his gran for most of his life but now she was too frail. John’s mother had died of an overdose and his dad was an alcoholic. School reminded John that he was different; he struggled in all his subjects and others made fun of his dishevelled appearance. I persuaded the school to let him try horse-riding.
On the first day of his lessons, I noticed John watching some of the horses as we drove into the farm. Usually full of bravado, he had become very quiet. He said to me, “I’m nay getting on that thing.”
“You need to get on,” was all I could think to say.
Two years later, John was still riding each week. Occasionally, I would see the owner of the stables surreptitiously watching him. When John mounted his horse, there was an observable charge of energy flowing between boy and beast. John’s riding was now the only thing in his life that was not failing.
The school sent me an email: “Unless John’s behaviours in school improve, we cannot let him go riding.” The teachers had cause to be concerned about John’s behaviours but even when we pleaded with them, they showed him no compassion.
Compassion is not about showing pity, neither is it purely sentimentality. It understands that a young person does not always have to get what he deserves. Compassion sees his vulnerability and instead gives him what he needs as an individual.
I could tell John knew something was wrong when his foster carer called him into the room. I tried to soften the blow, but John looked crushed when I told him the school’s decision. I’ll never forget his reaction: “I’m nay going back to school.” And he did not. John knew that his behaviour at school was a problem; what he lacked was the motivation to change. He must have felt the whole world was against him.
A basic belief in a benevolent world is not the only thing children need in order to be able to learn from the consequences of their behaviour. A lot of complicated developmental stuff has to have happened. Even in the first twelve months, as Jean Piaget observed, infants, by acting on their environment, learn a huge amount about themselves and the world around them. But is there a limit to how much an infant can learn on their own?
Imagine an infant who sees his favourite toy and extends his hand and fingers towards it. Can we assume the little chap can learn simply by his actions that he can have an effect on his world? Nearly three hundred years ago, David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment was not so sure, and philosophers are still arguing over his ideas. Much of what is happening around an infant is just coincidence; for example, the cat walks past and knocks over the same toy. Even if babies are really good “statistical inference machines”1,2 and can work out the correlation of two seemingly random events, they still cannot get to what Hume called “necessary connection.” We may have no way of grasping how our actions cause things to happen without the help of another person. As infants, we need an interpreter to help work out the consequences of our actions 3,4,5.
Imagine the same infant who observes his mother reaching out for the same toy. He uses himself as a framework for understanding her actions. “Object-directed, grasping movements can be imbued with goal-directedness, because of the child’s own experience with these acts.”6 According to Usha Goswami, Cambridge Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience, the ‘’like me analogy” opens the door for the young child to learn about his own and other’s intentions. 6
Imagine one more scenario. This time our baby smiles at his mother, sublimely happy that he has found someone to share in his delight. She beams back, her smile not only communicating her own joy but also attributing her child’s smile with joyful, generous intentions. The infant has his first lesson in personal agency: “I can bring happiness to others.”7
As long as that child’s interpreter is reasonably reliable and attuned, he or she becomes the gateway for learning about another person’s mind and intentions. These are invaluable lessons that can serve him well. What kind of intentions will he attribute in the future to the teacher who gives him a detention? However, if he has grown up with a caregiver who has consistently misinterpreted his acts as apparently provocative, attributing the infant behaviours with a hostile bias, there is good evidence that the same child will attribute the neutral behaviours of others with similar hostile intent.7 We quickly see that there is a developmental pathway that can have serious consequences for how a child responds to his teachers.
A lot has to happen in order for a child to accurately learn from the consequences of their actions. They need to be able to organise their behaviours around achieving a desired end. They need a sense of their personal agency: “I can bring about something good.” They need to have mastered the idea that other people have feelings like them and also act with similar kinds of intentions. (I am still working on that one.) They need to be able to regulate their emotions. Bessel Van Der Kolk concludes, “Predictability and continuity are critical for a child to develop a good sense of causality… .”8
Keeping it Real
Part of the significant context for a young person is how their behaviour impacts you as a parent, carer, or teacher. These things can feel personal; they can elicit strong feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and being wronged. I have to remind myself that there is no short cut in helping a young person. These are lessons that take time and lots of patience. The skilful part is also about how we present opportunities to young people to reflect on their behaviour. Dan Hughes advises using consequences that logically and naturally follow on from a child’s behaviours.9
Teachers also have a critical role in helping, even if we have a hard time giving up our sticker charts. But methods based on rewards and sanctions can be modified. I once observed a teacher use a system of rewarding a boy who could become very anxious and dysregulated. She told him that he would need to earn twenty marbles to go on a class trip, but she added, “You will never lose a marble you have earned”. I had my doubts at first but in the end, I think it worked because she was sending him a strong message of reassurance.
One secondary school struggled when a group foster home opened in the catchment area. The head teacher regularly suspended a couple of the young people. I suggested he should visit the house and express an interest in them. Kids who have faced a lifetime of rejection need to be reminded again and again that it is about their behaviour and not a rejection of them as a person. “You can’t fight in class, but this is your school and I want you back.”
Young people, like John, are far more likely to learn from the consequences of their behaviours when we reduce their anxiety and compensate or mitigate for any sense of rejection with clear messages of acceptance. We live in a world where behaviours have consequences and young people look to adults to be competent and fair, but sometimes it seems that compassion is in short supply. We might do well to remember Shakespeare’s words that those who administer justice tempered with mercy are twice blessed.
(1) The infant brain. In our time [podcast on the Internet]. London: BBC; 2010 March 4. [cited 2018 March 28]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00r2cn4.
(2) Sobel D, Kirkham N. Bayes nets and babies: infants’ developing statistical reasoning abilities and their representation of causal knowledge. Developmental Science. 2007; 10(3): 298-306.
(3) Sobel D. Integrating top-down and bottom-up approaches to children’s causal inference. In: Johnson S, (ed.) Neoconstructivism: The new science of cognitive development. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010. p. 159-179.
(4) Sakkalou E, Gattis M. Infants infer intentions from prosody. Cognitive Development. 2012; 27: 1-16.
(5) Meltzoff A. Born to learn: what infants learn from watching us. In: Fox N, Leavitt L, Warhol J, (eds.) The role of early experience in infant development. Johnson and Johnson; 1999. p. 145-164.
(6) Meltzoff, A. Imitation as a mechanism of social cognition: origins of empathy, theory of mind and the representation of action. In: Goswami E, (ed.) Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development. Oxford, UK: Blackwell; 2002. p. 6-25.
(7) Goswami, U. Child psychology: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2014.
(8) Van der Kolk, B. Developmental trauma disorder: toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals. 2005; 35 (5) 401-408.
(9) Hughes, D. Adopting children with attachment problems. Child welfare. 1999; 78(5) 541-560.
First published in www.saia.org.uk/blog 2019 © 2019 David Woodier, Support Teacher.
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